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Jewish culture, cuisine, people: inside Lehrhaus, Boston’s new tavern and house of learning

It was two nights before Passover, and at a new restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts, Jews of all stripes were enjoying themselves chometzstuffed plates and local beers they were about to give up for eight days.

In the next room, seated around a communal table, The Office star BJ Novak, his brother Lev and their father William told old-school Jewish jokes. Among the intimate crowd of about 20, someone who was not Jewish raised his hand and thanked the presenters for helping him understand what makes Jewish humor Jewish.

On display that evening at the Lehrhaus, a restaurant and bar that bills itself as a Jewish tavern and house of learning, was a joyous vision of what it means to have a space that is both distinctly, vibrantly Jewish and also open, and inviting, to people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Lerhaus had opened its doors just less than a month earlier, a long-delayed and welcome arrival in this Cambridge-adjacent neighborhood filled with intellectuals, students, professionals and young people in search of meaning and good food. Lehrhaus is committed to offering both.

There are many places to go for Jewish stuff in Boston, but nowhere is this easy, tasty, and fun, said Molly Kazan, a 20-year-old Cambridge resident who works at a Jewish nonprofit in the Boston area. Stepping into Lehrhaus is stepping into Jewish culture, cuisine, and people, all wrapped up in a new Somerville bar.

Since announcing their plans last summer, Lehrhaus founders Rabbi Charlie Schwartz and Josh Foer have generated a wave of interest throughout Boston and throughout the Jewish world among people excited by the prospect of a kosher restaurant. which takes a creative approach to create Jewish cocktails, food and food. learning.

After the restaurants gradually opened in March, Lehrhaus quickly attracted another clientele: Boston foodies. Lehrhaus landed on both Eater AND Thrillings lists of Boston’s hottest new restaurants, and a recent feature film in The Boston Globe it cemented Lehrhaus as a rising star on the Boston culinary scene.

Most kosher restaurants don’t attract people outside of kosher cuisine. This place yes. Most restaurants don’t have a distinctive Jewish identity outside of kashrut, Schwartz said Jewish Insider in a recent interview with Lehrhaus. What we’re actually doing here is defining Jewish food.

Almost everything in Lehrhaus has a story.

There’s the local beer, all from breweries located within 30 miles that first welcomed kashrut supervisors to certify that their beers could be served in a kosher establishment. There’s the amaro, which is a key ingredient in one of the Lehrhaus cocktails, from a distillery owned by a Seattle woman who agreed to go almost entirely kosher to service this establishment 3,000 miles away.

Lehrhaus’ food and drink menu is meant to resemble a page from the Talmud, with the main text on the menu in the center of the page. It is surrounded on all sides by commentary, which in this case means historical and religious explanations of the cuisine on offer.

Consider the explanation of the Tree of Knowledge, a fruity non-alcoholic cocktail: there are many thoughts about what fruit Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The prominence of the apple in Western European depictions is likely due to mistranslation or pun as the words for evil and apple in Latin are very similar. Many say the fruit was probably a pomegranate, fig, etrog, or even grape. The drink has figs, pomegranate, lemon and pineapple but no apple juice.

The food menu features familiar dishes like fish and chips (related to Sephardic Jews who fled England during the Inquisition) and more inventive ones like Seder salad, whose ingredients include a haroset crouton. (Lehrhaus recently landed Boston magazines list of Boston’s best fish and chips.)

Most kosher restaurants don’t want you to think this is a Jewish space. It just happens to be kosher, like, Oh, I didn’t even realize it was kosher, is the goal, Schwartz said. Here, this is a distinctly Jewish space and a vibrant Jewish space.

Because Lehrhaus is both kosher and, improbably, cool, it attracts a mix of Jews ranging from the unaffiliated to the observant, and everyone in between.

In our first week open, we were trending on both local queer listing services and orthodox listing services, Schwartz said. To have that intersection of people who say, Oh, this is mine too, and I grab it, that’s great.

Along the walls are more than 3,000 books, ranging from volumes of the Talmud to novels by Judy Blume to treatises on Zionism. In a beit midrash, or Jewish library and study hall, Lehrhaus offers lectures on topics ranging from Judeo-Arabic literature to Jewish history in Roman times and discussions of the Hebrew text. Last week Lehrhaus hosted more than 70 people for a conversation about Jewish art with Boston native comedian and playwright Alex Edelman.

There is a great chasm in the Jewish community in America right now, I think, between a curiosity about Jewish learning and ideas and content, especially when it’s really good, and at the same time skepticism about getting into Jewish institutions, said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Kurtzer recently flew in from New York to lecture on the history of the original Lehrhaus, a Jewish parlor founded in Germany in 1920 by philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. At the modern Lehrhaus, the barrier to entry to Hebrew learning is so low that if you’re not interested in what you’re learning, you can dodge beit midrash and grab a drink at the bar.

I think they figured something out in terms of thinking differently about how we view space in the Jewish community, in terms of understanding the whole Jewish self, Kurtzer added. They are building a different business model for Jewish involvement.

Classes are mostly designed to be small, with participants sitting around a large table and both learning from a teacher and discussing the topic with each other. The initial strategy for the classes they offer is to scale up and see what works, Schwartz said. The approach is rooted in pluralism; Lehrhaus collaborated with the Hartman Institute; Hebrew College, a nondenominational rabbinical school; and Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva. Ultimately, Lehrhaus hopes to offer one-on-one sessions for people interested in studying with a learning guide.

How many of Lehrhaus’ devoted cooking enthusiasts will stick around for the learning opportunities? This remains an open question.

Lehrhaus as a restaurant is great. Two thumbs up. Lehrhaus as a Jewish learning space, I haven’t really tried it yet, said Kazan, who noted that studying the text isn’t his preferred method of connecting with Judaism. Not sure if that will be the thing that keeps me going back. In the two months since it opened, she estimates she has been to the Lehrhaus six times.

William Novak, the Newton-based publisher of The Big Book of Jewish Humor and one of the speakers at last months conversation with his sons BJ and Lev, said news of Lehrhaus’s opening hadn’t reached his group of friends several decades older than the target demographic he’d noticed at the restaurant until Globe the article started circulating in his minyan WhatsApp group last week.

I live in the suburbs among people in their 70s, Novak said. However, he added, he had experience with creative Jewish programs like the Havurah movement of the 70s. I’m not aware of any innovative programs, but I’ve never seen or heard anything like this. I was so impressed.

Innovation remains a major concern of the Lehrhaus founders, who suggest future offerings could include prepaid Shabbat dinners (the restaurant is currently closed on Fridays and Saturdays), late opening on the Saturday after Shabbat ends, and Sunday brunch inspired by Sephardi and Mizrahi cultures. (The immediate area is something of a brunch desert, Schwartz noted.)

The Boston and Cambridge area and Somerville in particular may be an ideal incubator for a place like Lehrhaus, as a community with a thriving young Jewish population that lacks many nearby Jewish institutions this side of the Charles River. But its founders insist that it’s not the only place that would benefit from a Lehrhaus, nor is it the only place that would be hospitable to such an institution.

This could be something that changes the math and landscape of a community and the institutions that should serve the Jews of that community, said Kurtzer, who added that the founders of Lehrhaus described it to him this way: A Jewish community should have a synagogue, a JCC, a mikvah and a Lehrhaus, or tavern.

Schwartz and Foer aren’t shy about saying they want to see more Lehrhaus outside of Boston, though Schwartz has been coy about what the next location might be.

What are the criteria that make this work right now? he asked. It’s a fairly large Jewish community with not a huge amount of community infrastructure, a large number of young Jews, a high level of population dropout. It should also be in a place where Lehrhaus can raise enough funds to get started, because the institution is a non-profit organization.

Kurtzer thinks it’s an easy proposition for philanthropists: You’re not donating money to a restaurant, he said. You are donating money to a Jewish young adult engagement project that has a revenue stream.
If you build it, the proverb says, they will come.

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